Watching Only God Forgives you’d be pardoned for thinking just what the fuck is going on here. Its slow pacing coupled with primitive violence — Gosling constantly staring off into the distance without blinking and speaking a total of maybe fourteen sentences, all while he slashes and dices — one questioned whether David Lynch had snuck into the editing room for a month long cigarette break after a Netflix binge on old westerns and kung fu movies. Compiling a host of epic Asian crime sagas and mixing it with a touch of Twin Peaks-level freakery, it was nothing short of supreme alienation. Depending on who you were, it was either one of the best films of the year or a sign director Nicolas Winding Refn had begun to lose the plot.
But wait, this review isn’t about that film. This is about the Golden Boy, the saving grace of action cinema, Gareth Evans. He who brought us The Raid only a few years ago was — rightly — crowned with the glory of resuscitating a genre that the dinosaurs of 80s action, Stallone et al, were clawing onto with wrinkled, growth hormone-injected biceps. Never before had we seen such ferocity and edge-of-the-seat martial art fighting (people get thrown through walls!) and a ton of bullet sprayed in the process.
The sequel, The Raid 2: Berandal (meaning hoodlums), is an exercise in dethronement. Where The Raid literally bragged its standing as an all-action extravaganza with one teeny minute of romance — a line on the poster said as much — Evans has bravely thrown out the formula and made a tribute to whatever Asian crime saga he’s recently rented from Blockbusters, along with his Only God Forgives blu. (Whole set pieces and scenes feel like cut and pastes from Forgives. This isn’t to suggest Refn invented said imagery but it’s an important comparison.)
To ditch whatever made the original film work is always a wise move. Its success wasn’t the insanity (though that undeniably helped) but rather the simplicity of the idea: cops invade a building in the slums to take down a gang boss involved in the drug trade. The scope was minimal and with that it was allowed to flourish and breathe within its own tiny existence.
The Raid 2 is Evans widening the focus lens. We thank him for not repeating his footsteps, unlike Todd Phillips with the first two Hangovers and the entire series of Everybody Loves Raymond, but part of us wishes he’d tightened it a little less. It’s also part carbon copy of Refn’s latest, in a mise-en-scéne manner, and halfway through one wishes they were watching that superior film instead.
Sitting loosely between incredibly tight action scenes, including what will surely be two of the best scenes at years end — the prison attack and the final fight — is a motion of conversations taking place among dozens of characters that float idly betwixt these volcanic crescendos, often without thought. Multiple plot lines make themselves known throughout the course of the film but they’re tied up in a confusing, haphazard mess: a knot of string is the end result, not a neat woven ball. For example, one character is revealed to not quite be who he says he is, but it’s explained to us at the film’s end and we’re long past caring by then.
Maybe Evans wanted to write a book, such is the (unnecessary) complexity of the tale. The film isn’t a complete failure, such is his strength in directing action, but it’s a snapshot of a film that wasn’t all there. The conversations and brutality take place in beautiful, sparse open spaces that resemble an invaded utopia. Evans has thrown a bowl of spaghetti at the wall and only a few strands of plot were left stuck. The rest is sitting on the floor wondering what happened.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire